On this Turkish trail, kindness is the compass

Walking an ancient 330km route alone seems solitary. Except for friendships struck with farmers – and for the ghosts of Ottoman sultans and Roman soldiers who trod the trail before.

When I arrived in Hersek, a Turkish village located 160km south of Istanbul across the Sea of Marmara, Refik Ertürk was standing in the doorway of his kahve (teahouse). Men sat at card tables outside, filling the dusk air with the clicking of backgammon tiles and the clinking of spoons against their tulip-shaped tea glasses. Next door, pomegranate and fig trees grew along the stone walls of a blue-domed mosque; in the distance, I could just make out the bleating of sheep and the melodic din of their bells – sounds that would soon become familiar in this bucolic corner of northwest Anatolia.

I was at the starting point of a walking and riding route known as the Evliya Çelebi Way, which runs from Hersek south to the city of Simav. The route is 330km (some 22 days) on foot, and extends to 650km (about 25 days) on horseback, as the riding route includes the Yenişehir Plain, the 130km between Kütahya and Uşak and the Gediz Plain. Founded in 2011 by a team of historians and long-distance trekking guides, the history of the path actually extends back much further. 

Evliya Çelebi was a 17th-century Ottoman traveller and writer who journeyed extensively through the empire for more than 40 years, documenting his travels in his 10-volume Seyahatname (Book of Travels). As Ertürk’s teenaged daughter Tuğçe told me after her father invited me to stay in their home that evening, “he was acting like Christopher Columbus”. In 1671, Çelebi left Istanbul for the final time to make hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. The route named in his honour follows the first three weeks of his journey.

When Çelebi set out for Mecca, he did so with three companions, eight servants and 15 purebred Arabian horses. When I set out, I was alone. I had an 80-litre backpack full of camping gear, a 15-lira compass from a shop in Istanbul, no knowledge of Turkish except for the glossary in my guidebook and only my own two feet to convey me – plus a litany of concerns from Ertürk, his wife and Tuğçe. Where would I sleep? Who would guide me? I tried to downplay my lack of a map or GPS, but truthfully I shared in their doubts.

Setting out the next morning, I surprised myself by making slow but steady progress toward Simav. The route comprised asphalt road, old paved roads known as kaldırum, narrow goat paths and well-worn tractor tracks hewn from the earth over centuries of use. I often shared the road with flocks of sheep or goats, their whistling, wizened shepherds never far behind, and with farmers who waved as they ferried neatly-stacked crates of grapes, tomatoes, green apples and pumpkins.

The morning of my fourth day led me through endless groves of olive trees on the way to the town of İznik, about 35 kilometres into my walk. It was the end of October; my journey coincided with the harvest. Whole families were out working, their car doors left open to let pop songs resonate from the speakers. Women in headscarves and floral şalvar trousers balanced on ladders, stripping each branch of its olives using short, handheld rakes. Husbands and children busied themselves below on the patchwork of plastic tarps, filling brightly coloured crates and buckets. A family beckoned and taught me how to use the rake myself. After, they sent me on my way with bunches of grapes clipped straight from a nearby vine. 

I finished eating the gift just as I arrived in the village of Orhaniye a couple of kilometres later. Seated in the shade of a kahve, I ordered a tost sandwich (Turkish-style grilled cheese, often prepared with sausage) and ayran (Turkish buttermilk), and began chatting with 22-year-old Recep Toktaş, who had recently spent six months studying in Valencia, Spain. He was the first person to ask why I was on the trail. I explained that I felt that the best way to experience a new culture is to walk through it. Despite the blisters and the burden of a backpack, it is an extraordinary sensation to feel a place’s history unfolding beneath your feet – century by century, step by step. 

That afternoon, in the middle of an olive orchard, I looked up to see an obelisk dating to the 1st Century. The Dikilitaş – also known as Beştaş, meaning “five stones” in Turkish – stands 1,212m high. The obelisk marked the spot of a way-station for the Ottoman army; even Suleiman the Magnificent, the empire’s longest-reigning ruler, camped there in 1534 en route to Baghdad. After all, it was not only Çelebi’s footsteps I was following. Two millennia of soldiers and shepherds and sultans had travelled on this path, and my journey passed by reminders of that history – sacred tombs, mosques, hammams, bridges, ruins and caravansary, all of whose stones held as many stories as they did dust.

As the days passed, the route grew more mountainous. So did the likelihood of my losing the trail, since the signposting was scarcer and the forest paths proved confusing. Hardly a day went by where I didn’t get lost in the woods at least once. But what kept me walking were the people I met when, unsure of my way, I had to ask for directions – my burgeoning knowledge of Turkish assisted by mimed gestures and hand-drawn maps. Their kindness became my compass. 

On the 12th day, I knocked on the door of a farmhouse near the village of Seydikuzu after several hours of walking, lost, in a cold rain. A couple pulled me inside, spread my jacket out to dry across a sack of pinecones by the fire and told me about their children over rounds of tea and potato burek, a baked, flaky pastry invented during the Ottoman Empire. When it was time to leave, the husband donned my 25kg backpack, leaving me – horrified and humbled – to follow him through a field to the right road. Another evening, a kilometre outside the village of Bağbaşı, I stumbled across a farmer with a herd of cows. When I asked where I might pitch my tent, he invited me to stay with him and his elderly mother. They lived above their stable; the squawking of hens and the lowing of cattle was the soundtrack as I slept. 

By the end of my 22-day journey, I had used my tent only four times: apart from a few hotels in larger towns such as İznik, İnegöl and Kütahya, the rest of my nights were spent in spontaneous homestays. The families never seemed to mind making space for another around their circular silver dining trays. And they never ceased to shake their heads that I was a woman walking through their country alone.  

I later received an email from the founders of the Evliya Çelebi Way. They had read about my journey on my blog and told me that I was the first person they knew to have walked the route from end to end. I felt thrilled with the accomplishment. But what gave me an even greater thrill was thinking back to all those I had met on the way – the olive gatherers and tomato farmers, the shepherds and students, the ghosts of soldiers and sultans past – and knowing I was only one more traveller who had trodden this ancient way.